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A model for green, affordable housing

Imagine a cul-de-sac of passive solar homes sporting expansive views of the Pacific Ocean. Over-the-top purchase prices. Rents in the multiple thousands. Right?

Not so.

In an effort to respond to the needs of its tribal citizens, the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation, located in Del Norte County just south of the Oregon border, is in the process of creating affordable housing on lands held in trust by the tribe.

According to Tolowa Planning Coordinator Virginia Young, the first level of a multi-stage project involves constructing 21 small homes designed to replicate the cedar-plank houses of a historical Tolowa village. Additional neighborhoods, and possibly multi-unit dwellings, are under consideration.

Planning Director Tim Hoone laid out a bit of information about Tolowa history. Before European-Americans arrived in the area, the Tolowa inhabited a region that stretched from the Northern California/Southern Oregon coast out to the Applegate Valley. Having suffered through forced exile to reservations in the 19th century, many Tolowa survivors returned to their resource-rich, coastal lands in order to re-inculcate younger generations into cultural practices tied to the climate and resources of historical lands.

After several disappointing attempts to negotiate treaties to restore lands to the Tolowa, in 1900 the state of California established the 160-acre Smith River Rancheria. Re-named the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation in 2015, the tribe now has approximately 1,800 registered citizens, roughly half of them living within a 30-mile radius of the tribal offices in the town of Smith River.

Affordable housing is a pressing issue everywhere that real estate has become highly inflated, but especially in rural areas. In Del Norte County, Hoone estimates that median incomes are roughly $37,000 per year, hardly sufficient to meet rising rent prices. The tribal council decided to take action to help struggling citizens.

The Tolowa applied for federal building grants and partnered with several private investors in order to fund the project. Embedded in the affordable-living grants was a condition that the buildings be energy-efficient. The historical west-facing houses positioned roofs perfectly for sunlight exposure. As Hoone pointed out, eco-friendliness is not only good for the planet but helps residents financially; solar panels will save residents as much as $150 per month. The homes also have other energy-saving elements, such as heat pump water heaters, which, according to energy.gov, “use electricity to move heat from one place to another instead of generating heat directly.”

Government-subsidized properties are required to remain as low-income rental units for a minimum of 15 years. Unlike with profit-based housing projects, these affordable rents are not directed toward reimbursing construction expenses, but to offset operating costs.

Another plus to the housing project is that it provides jobs. According to contractor Tyler Travis, who has worked construction for the past 8 years, the Nation employs as many tribal citizens as it can.

What can Ashland learn from the Tolowa project?

Our housing situation is more complex than that of a self-contained nation. However, we do share similarities with the Tolowa, like being able to receive funds from state and federal programs.

The city of Ashland receives approximately $150,000 annually from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as Community Development Block Grant funds, which can be used by qualified nonprofits for a variety of housing and community development projects that benefit low- and moderate-income persons in Ashland, according to the city website (www.ashland.or.us/sectionindex.asp?sectionid=497)

Typically, investors and builders create housing projects in order to generate profit. To offset losses, the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit program compensates developers for losses incurred when renting to qualified, low-income tenants. “Rents in these units are capped at a maximum of 30% of the set-aside area median income (adjusted for unit size).”

There is also government compensation for building ecologically. As a financial incentive to install solar panels, Ashland has a Virtual Net Metering program, “a policy which enables energy produced at one electric meter to be credited to another meter within the Ashland’s municipal electric utility.”

To get additional ideas on how to create low-income, green housing, developers might want to check out the Tolowa project at www.tolowa-nsn.gov/departments/housing/. Hoone can be reached at 707-487-9255, ext. 1230, or via email at tim.hoone@tolowa.com.

Tolowa Dee-ni' Nation is constructing green, affordable homes with ocean views. Courtesy photo